Justice for all

Superman for the Animals

Superman for the Animals. Cover art by Tom Grummett and Dick Giordano. Copyright DC Comics.

Fourth Age of Comics is an excellent blog site that examines modern comic book storytelling with a particular focus on the types of issues superheroes can effectively be used to address. The site extensively examines Grant Morrison’s coverage of animal rights issues during his run as writer on Animal Man (a post I commented on), and provides in-depth, thoughtful and positive reviews of Superman for the Animals and X-Men Unlimited #44, the two comic books I worked on as director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program. You can read my commentary on the Superman for the Animals review here on the Fourth Age blog site. I also addressed some general comments in the review regarding different approaches to animal rights activism, and have decided to expand on these thoughts here.

Direct action comics
The review compares Animal Man’s habit of intervening directly, and often illegally, to stop animal cruelty with Superman’s more subtle approach of trying to teach compassion by example.

This is where Animal Man broke down. He never succeeded in inspiring anyone to emulate him, and he tried to face down evil and save the world pretty much all by himself. But Superman knows better. He’s got to redeem us all first. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I agree that ending systemic, culturally acceptable and societally institutionalized animal cruelty—factory farming, vivisection, fur production, circuses, etc.—will require a shift in consciousness and sweeping social change best accomplished through education, outreach and providing positive examples of what a compassionate lifestyle looks like. But the direct and sometimes illegal action of Animal Man still has a point—especially if you’re the individual fox, monkey or dolphin whose life he is saving. (Plus, in cases like the real life raid Animal Man’s lab break-in was based on, stolen videos and records are used to expose experimenters’ cruelty to the public.) Just like there was a place for both the (legal) abolition movement and the (illegal) underground railroad in the effort to end human slavery, there is a place for both The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Liberation Front in the effort to end animal exploitation, cruelty and abuse.

animalman triptych

Left to right: Page from Animal Man #10, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chas Truog and Mark McKenna; Animal Man #s 15 and 17, cover art by Brian Bolland. Copyright DC Comics.

Taking the die out of diet
The Fourth Age of Comics review of Superman for the Animals also addresses a retelling of the Man of Steel’s origin, Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Yu. Published by DC Comics in 2003, three years after Superman for the Animals, it revealed that as a young adult, Clark Kent was a vegetarian (something that, unfortunately, has since been erased from the character’s history).

There, Superman appears as a vegetarian on the ground that he holds all life sacred. I’ve seen this praised by some, and I can certainly see the impetus for that. I disagree with this interpretation of Superman, though. Superman grew up on a farm. He’s seen animals live and die and has probably helped birth and kill a few himself.

I, on the other hand, feel that the evidence that Superman would be a vegetarian is overwhelming.  As a hero who is resolute in his unwillingness to take lives; has encountered, shown respect to, and befriended aliens of every conceivable type and form; and may not even possess a biological requirement to eat at all (getting all his nourishment, like his super powers, from our yellow sun, according to some writers), it seems totally inconsistent with Superman’s character that he would eat meat. And as for his upbringing on a farm, seeing firsthand the violent means by which meat makes its way to the table (something most people never witness) is often more of an incentive, not less, for going vegetarian. Howard Lyman is a fourth generation cattle rancher, who was actively engaged in dairy, pork, chicken and cattle production for 20 years in Montana before going vegetarian around 1990. Today, he is a 73-year-old vegan animal welfare advocate, perhaps most famous for being a co-defendant with Oprah Winfrey in an unsuccessful lawsuit initiated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for disparaging remarks Oprah made about hamburger while Lyman was a guest on her show.

Wonder Woman

Page from Wonder Woman #195. Written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Drew Johnson. Copyright DC Comics.

In fact, it’s because of transformations like Howard Lyman’s that Mark Waid’s unsuccessful attempt to make Superman a vegetarian in Birthright ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. In the story, Clark made this dietary choice because of his previously unrevealed (and also since erased) ability to see the auras of living beings. This is similar to writer George Rucka’s 2003 revelation that Wonder Woman was a vegetarian because she could speak with animals. These details seem to portray being vegetarian as some sort of superhuman feat, beyond the realm of mere mortals, despite the fact that millions of people around the world and throughout the centuries have been able to comprehend their interconnectedness with other species, and extend their circle of compassion accordingly, without possessing super powers of perception.


Panel details from Superman: Birthright. Written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Yu. Copyright DC Comics.

Declaration of humane rights
The review concludes by putting forth the case, echoed by many others, that meat production can be reformed to a point where any moral objections to it would be eliminated.

I cannot conceive of a good argument against eating ethically treated, mercifully killed, and sustainably raised animals, aside from an argument based on aesthetics.

This too, is  something with which I must vehemently, and respectfully, disagree. Real-life humans have no more of a biological requirement to consume meat than Superman does (according to the USDA and American Dietetic Association, among others). Therefore, unless no other source of nourishment is available, I don’t see how it can be considered “ethical” to breed, confine, and then kill healthy animals—no matter how little suffering the process causes—just to satisfy a craving or support an industry.

Writer Chuck Austen titled his story in X-Men Unlimited #44 “Can They Suffer?”, from a quote by 18th-19th century philosopher Jeremy Benthem, who cited this as the only question worth considering when determining our obligation as humans to treat other animals humanely. I agree that this is a much more important factor to consider than distinctions such as outward appearance, physical or mental ability and foreign language or behavior. These things should rightfully be irrelevant when determining our moral and ethical responsibilities to others—whether they belong to another race, gender, nation or species. But physical or emotional suffering is not the only factor to consider.

X-Men Unlimited #44

Simply put, I see no reason that the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should belong exclusively to humans. Within our own species, we consider it unethical to imprison others without cause, no matter how hospitable the cell, or even if the prisoner is somehow kept unaware that their freedom has been taken from them. Likewise, what difference would it make to a jury that a killer had taken a victim’s life painlessly while they slept, unaware of their imminent demise? Should the “merciful” method of this act outweigh the fact that it was carried out solely for the killer’s personal pleasure or profit? Should it negate the outrage over the years of life stolen from the victim? (Animals slaughtered for food live just a fraction of their natural life spans.)

If, like me, a being can demonstrate self-interest in their own life, liberty or pursuit of happiness—through some version or another of the flight or fight response we have in common—I can’t justify violating these unalienable rights simply to satisfy my own comfort or custom. I don’t see how it makes any difference whether that being is my neighbor or a neighborhood squirrel. Justice, after all, is supposed to be blind.

JLA: Liberty and Justice

Page from JLA: Liberty and Justice. Words by Paul Dini and art by Alex Ross. Copyright DC Comics.

This all-inclusive notion of justice is at the core of the superhero ethic. In the 2003 over-sized JLA: Liberty and Justice, written by Paul Dini and beautifully painted by Alex Ross, Aquaman, King of the Seven Seas, essentially delivers an animal rights manifesto (for some reason, 2003 was a very good year for animals in comics):

The heroes of the Earth do not limit their compassion to humans.

Wherever lives are threatened, a champion will fight to save them.

On land or in the sea, the rules are simple.

Those who use force will find it returned in kind—and killing is never tolerated.

If taken literally, Aquaman’s unambiguous and uncompromising declaration should mean that the members of the Justice League of America are as dedicated to thwarting institutionalized animal cruelty as they are to stopping human-on-human crime. Instead, the fact that these words accompany images of Aquaman saving whales from being slaughtered—rather than cows, chickens or pigs—is apparently meant to subtly reassure readers that his warning only applies to popular “celebrity” species, whose lives can be protected without directly impacting those of most humans.

Letter from Bill Jemas

A message from the President of Marvel Comics from X-Men Unlimited #44.

But this interpretation by comic book writers and publishers contradicts the essence of their own creations. From his first appearance in 1938, the future star of Superman for the Animals was proudly proclaimed as a “champion of the oppressed . . . who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” The persecution of mutants in the Marvel Universe has long been recognized, and often deliberately intended, as a metaphor for all persecuted groups throughout history. That, and the fact that so many mutant superheroes—Wolverine, Beast, Archangel, to name a few—possess animal names and/or characteristics, is why I chose the X-Men as the protagonists for the second Comics for Compassion project. But being aimed at a mostly preteen audience, the stories in these comic books tried to put complex ideas about freedom, rights and responsibilities toward others in much more simple, but no less meaningful terms. On the inside cover of the special Doris Day Animal Foundation edition of X-Men Unlimited #44 (yet another 2003 title), then-president of Marvel Comics, Bill Jemas, shared with his readers what he considered “a simple truth” that his company has stressed “again and again,” ever since Spider-Man’s first appearance nearly 50 years ago.

Heroes are not made by the abilities they possess, but by what they chose to do with those abilities. This is true whether you have the power to climb walls, spin webs, or simply speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Panel from Superman for the Animals

Panel from Superman for the Animals. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Tom Grummett and Dick Giordano. Copyright DC Comics.

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4 Responses to Justice for all

  1. Andrew G says:

    I think a thought experiment is necessary before we dismiss the idea of cruelty free meat production as necessarily bad for an animal such as cattle. What happens if the entire population of the United States adopts a vegan diet? Specifically, what happens to the cattle? Despite a small number of people being both willing and able to raise cattle as pets and even allowing for limited success of proposals to reintroduce them to the wild, in a short period of time the number of cattle living in the United States would plummet to extremely small numbers. From the perspective of the cattle, is such an outcome truly preferable?

    A better outcome for cattle might take place if instead of full on veganism, the entire population of the United States adopted a simply meat free diet. This at least would allow dairy production to provide the economic means to support the lives of a great number of cattle, especially cows. But what would be done to all the excess bulls?

    How does one even begin to measure which outcome would be better; zero meat and dairy production or “cruelty free” meat and dairy production? Add up all the years lived by “free cattle” under the no meat and no dairy scenario and we get a total number of Free Cattle Years or FCY. Add up all the cruelty free years lived by all cattle under the cruelty free scenario and we get a total number of Happy Cattle Years or HCY. Obviously HCY would be a far greater number than FCY. The only real questions are how much greater HCY is over FCY and at what point does the difference between these numbers justify “cruelty free” meat and dairy production?

    An enforced regime of cruelty free meat production has another advantage over the scenario of a completely vegetarian or vegan population. It’s probably a lot more likely to actually happen. Assuming of course that governing power can somehow be wrested away from the corporations and other accumulations of capital which are systematically disposed to care about nothing but increasing profits.

    • Thanks for your comments Andrew. As it happens, the thought experiment you suggest is one I’ve conducted on numerous occasions, once in response to former ASPCA President, the late Roger Caras. I’d be happy to share my results (less snarkily, I hope, than I did with Mr. Caras).

      First, I have to reiterate my belief that using others solely for personal pleasure or profit, regardless of how little suffering it inflicts on those exploited, presents an ethical barrier that I don’t see a way to overcome.

      To begin with, the entire population of the United States is unlikely to adopt a vegan diet en masse, which means we wouldn’t have a sudden cattle overpopulation crisis. Regarding the cattle’s diminishing numbers as the meat and dairy industries gradually faded away, although differences between the mental faculties of humans and other animals are usually irrelevant to considerations of humane or ethical treatment, in this case I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have to worry about cows being tormented by thoughts of their species’ impending extinction. As for the theoretical future generations of cows that would never exist, I can’t believe that the unconceived—whether human or animal—can possibly have any opinion, positive or negative, about their state of nonbeing.

      Furthermore, the dairy industry is as cruel, and in some ways crueler, than the meat industry. In order to keep the supply of milk flowing, cows are constantly impregnated, which is entirely unnatural. Calves are separated from their mothers, usually within 24 hours, so that the milk intended for them can be taken for human consumption. This causes both cow and calf well-documented emotional suffering—cows have been known to escape enclosures and travel for miles to reunite with their young. The male calves, who will obviously never produce milk and won’t grow as large as cattle raised for meat, are turned into veal to make a quick profit. Meanwhile, the mothers are hooked up to milking machines that can cause electrical shocks, painful lesions, and infections. The stressful, unhealthy conditions on dairy factory farms cut the natural 25-year lifespan of a cow down to four or five years of profitable milk production before she is considered used-up and sent to the slaughterhouse.

      If societal attitudes about animal cruelty continue to shift to the point where more humane, less intensive and less cruel dairy industry practices become the norm, rather than the very rare exception, it seems reasonable to assume that there would also be increasing numbers of people willing to forgo milk altogether. It’s especially likely given that the bizarre practice of adult humans drinking the milk of other species is even less natural, and just as unhealthy, as eating meat. Humans are the only animals who drink milk throughout their lives, except for domesticated animals like cats who we feed it to (and, it turns out, it’s not good for them either).

      A dairy-free society would not only eliminate tremendous human and cow suffering. The waste runoff from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (a.k.a. CAFOs) is a major source of water pollution, while livestock methane emissions are a greater contributor to climate change than automobile exhaust. Eliminating these sources of environmental devastation would benefit every inhabitant of the planet, leading to a longer, healthier, and presumably happier life for every living being.

      Seeing how little (if anything) cows and the rest of us would gain from institutionalizing a less cruel* system of confinement and exploitation to produce a product that isn’t good for anyone but a calf, this thought experiment still leads me to the conclusion that becoming a predominately vegan society would be overwhelmingly more beneficial to cows, humans and the world.

      Having said all that, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of any step someone is willing to take toward living a less cruel lifestyle. Whether it’s going vegetarian rather than vegan, becoming a “flexitarian,” or simply observing meat-free-Mondays, every little step on the path toward a more just and compassionate lifestyle makes a difference. I just encourage anyone who embarks on this path not to be afraid to follow it as far as they can.

      *”Cruelty-free” being unattainable under the circumstances.

  2. fourthage says:

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for posting here, as you did in my blog, a thoughtful and interesting response to my review. I can see now that you are looking at the question of superheroes, animal activism, and vegetarianism very differently than I was: I was thinking in terms of the proposition “can they suffer?”; you’re thinking in terms of intrinsic rights. The former is an easy, basic, and convincing argument; the latter is more difficult and problematic for me personally, but the more I think about it, the more I think you’re right that it would necessarily be a guiding principle for Superman, and, at the least, Aquaman and Animal Man. Superman’s actions are governed by an unconditional respect for all living things and a dedication to protecting them; that’s his rationale for protecting humans, aliens, and animals, and not the question about a capacity to suffer. One would expect him to also be a pretty radical environmentalist. One of my favorite features of Superman – and one that Grant Morrison has seized on his typically perceptive fashion – is that he’s super-humanly moral; he’s super-humanly connected. But “super” here is a misnomer, because, as you note, even without super-powers, we have the capacity to imitate fully his morality and connectivity. And those are the important things; heat vision, super strength, and all the rest are incidental to him being a hero.

    Your point about Aquaman and the whales is a good one: it does seem to “subtly reassure readers” that he isn’t doing or standing for anything too drastic (I suppose even saving salmon or tuna might have been too inflammatory, much less the cows, chicken, or pigs). The homogeneity of ideas among superheroes has always bugged me in general. One would think that Superman would have a very different ideological system and stand for very different things than, say, Wonder Woman, and sometimes their differences are played up, but in general the results are the same and they remain unexplored. Especially when it comes to writing about “important” characters like Superman or Aquaman, there is a conservative streak that has them upholding the status quo and resisting challenging anything, even if such characters are the most ideologically developed and would find plenty in the status quo to challenge. Of course, this is not surprising given that they are popular and lucrative characters in an industry mostly geared towards offering unproblematic entertainment to young people in particular. But it’s extremely frustrating because they are also the characters who mean the most and who might most inspire us to imitate them and do the right thing. When they do challenge us and confront us with important questions, as I think Superman does here, it’s a precious thing indeed.

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